Nadja Maril grew up in Baltimore and lives in Annapolis Maryland. . She is the author of hundreds of feature articles for newspapers and magazines, two reference books on antique American lighting, and two children’s books illustrated with paintings by her father, Herman Maril. She has served as magazine editor at publications that include Victorian Homes, What’s Up? Media, and Chesapeake Taste but her first love has always been writing poetry, fiction, and memoir.
Trying to be Normal
I found the lump while taking a bath. My thoughts on the night ahead and the Halloween Party, I lie back enjoying the warmth of the water as I soap my chest. That’s when I felt it—a raised lump on the inside of my left breast. Right over my heart.
Figures, just when I thought that nothing worst could happen something does. I find a lump. Cancer? If it’s cancer I may die a slow lingering death. Even if I recover there’s a lot of pain involved. Surgery, chemo, radiation…looking like shit.
What am I talking about? Do I even know I have cancer? What I know is there’s a lump. It might not be malignant. It might be benign. The lump in my groin, it wasn’t even a tumor, it was a hernia. And I was so worried. This might be something similar, maybe just a cyst. The lump on my chest, the lump over my heart, might just be a benign cyst.
Somewhere I read most lumps women find are benign. We just hear about the bad ones. They’re the lumps everyone talks about.
It’s Saturday night and I’m about to go to a Halloween Party. Then there is Sunday. No doctor sees patients on Sunday so why am I thinking about what may or may not be. I have to wait until Monday to deal with this and then who knows, how long before they give me an appointment. I might have to wait weeks.
I do have a family history. My mother. She ‘s still strong and living, but she did have cancer. Not that she was ever going to directly tell me the entire story of her diagnosis and treatment. It was something she didn’t wish to discuss.
“I’ve been scarred,” she told me when I attempted to ask her what had happened, “grossly disfigured.”
Would a 12-year-old child know to ask directly, “What do you mean by that?” I knew she’d been in the hospital for days and that when she got home she was not allowed to drive. I knew she thought she was going in for a routine surgery to have a benign tumor removed but the plans changed, once the doctors opened her up and looked more closely. I felt my parents’ worry and my mother’s anger so I decided to keep my questions to myself.
I discovered the prosthesis in the bathroom. My curiosity caused me to examine it because I wanted to know the truth. It felt heavy, weighted; something was sealed inside of it, an imaginary bosom enclosed in the soft nylon of her padded bra. My mother, a small-breasted woman, always wore padded bras. I did the same, wore bras with padding. With a Miracle bra, you can suddenly have a large, ample bosom; even create cleavage when you have none. Before miracle bras there was just plain padding. .
The girls in junior high school made fun of me. They knew I was flat chested, suspected it, and one day one of them came behind me and unhooked my bra. The others laughed. I was certain there were big wet circles of moisture under my armpits that everyone could see. I was so embarrassed. I’m glad that at least those days of unbalanced hormones are over.
My mother lost her breast before the days of breast reconstruction and before the days when there were choices. You went to have the surgery and you woke up, sometimes to find your breast gone. Gone without any prior discussion. Gone because some important older male doctors wearing long white coats had taken a cursory glance at the tumor’s shape and made a snap decision that they knew what was best. I’m sure they thought breasts were not really necessary, particularly for a woman over forty, so they cut into the muscle and the tissue, neatly stitching everything up and said, “Now you have nothing to worry about my dear.”
I don’t like it when people call me dear. It feels and sounds as if they’re looking down their noses at me when they speak, as if they know better. They don’t. If I call you “dear” it means you’re making me angry but I’m too polite to tell you so.
My mother never had radiation. It was in the early days before chemo became a part of everyone’s vocabulary. She needed no other “treatment”. She just has to deal for the rest of her life, with the ugliness of the scar and the lack of balance between one side and the other when not wearing her prosthesis and the worry that maybe the cancer will return. That maybe cutting off one breast had not been good enough to save her life.
She also worried about her secret. The word cancer was a dirty word. It was a disease that often signaled death, and no one likes to be associated with the dying. To the outside world she wanted to look as normal and as healthy as possible. She developed a preference for turtlenecks and jewel collars. It was safer.
I don’t want to tell her about this lump, don’t want to worry her. She didn’t want to worry me, back then, and I don’t want to make her worry now. Who do I tell? No one.
I would be telling my husband but he’s dead. Isn’t that ironic? Not from cancer, no he’s dead from a car accident. The good news is I don’t need to worry about causing him any anxiety. Where he is now he has no worries. If I believe in God and an omniscient universe then Michael knows it all, can see me here lying back in my bathtub, the water temperature growing cooler by the minute.
But the scarier thing is I’m a parent. If I am sick, if I’m dying who will take care of Brandon? He’s only four years old.
Life sucks. . What am I going to do since I can’t call my mother? Talk to a ghost?
The good news: Her breast cancer was not lethal, maybe it wasn’t even really cancer and they just removed her breast out of convenience.
I have to keep telling myself what I think is good news, to balance the bad.
If I tell no one, is it real? It’s when you start telling people about things and you repeat the details over and over, that’s when they become solid. If you don’t talk about something, if you minimize its importance, it kind of disappears.
I feel my chest. The lump is still there, sizeable and firm.
I pull myself out of the now chilly water and reach for a towel, rubbing myself vigorously. I will put on my black cat costume with my long tail and ears. I’ll help Brandon get dressed in his tiger suit and we’ll go to the Ford’s up the street and I’ll throw down a couple of cocktails and I’ll forget all about this episode in the tub. I’ll just live in the moment, focus on the present,
I’m wearing my black padded bra, black leotard, black tights, black ballerina flats, my kitty cat ears and my tail. I’ve painted whiskers on my face and on Brandon’s face and he looks adorable.
“Charlotte, you look spectacular!! I wish I looked so good in a leotard!” Amy Ford tells me when I walk in the door. She is always so kind, easily bestowing compliments. I give her a gracious smile.
“You don’t think it’s too much?”
“Are you kidding? With your figure you can get away with it.”
Amy is dressed as a witch and her husband Dave is wearing a white shirt and long black cape. Blood is painted on his face dripping from the corner of his mouth. I think he is trying to be Dracula. I look around the room and I see no other adults wearing costumes. I feel out of place.
Brandon quickly finds his friends.: a devil, a magician, and a policeman. They are diving their hands into a large bowl of candy corn. Someone, a mother I don’t know, is setting up a tin washtub filled with apples.
“Hey,” Dave Ford calls to the woman. “ Susannah let me help you set that washtub up in the kitchen. I don’t want water dripping all over the wood.”
His comment reminds me of my husband Michael always worrying about our wood floor. Like Michael, Dave probably sanded their floor right before they moved in and doesn’t want to do it again. Can I blame him?
But I would do it again, relive the past. I think of Michael and myself ripping up the carpeting in our first house, pleased to find oak floors underneath, popping open a bottle of champagne to celebrate. My throat starts to tighten and the knowledge of what I have lost punches me in the gut. I feel slow and heavy, weighed down. I feel myself sinking into the place I call “my pit of despair.” If I let myself sink down into the pit, I might never get out. .
I want to leave the party. I’ve just arrived and Brandon is having fun. I have to tough this out.
I look around the room. Jack O’ Lanterns cast a warm soft glow and there are screams of delight from the kitchen where the children are playing their games. I feel distant even though I’m in a crowd. I see clumps of adults standing in groups having conversations. Maybe there is someone I can talk to who will let me into their circle. I focus on the people I know. I see a couple with their new baby and start making my way in their direction but am intercepted.
Charlotte. Is that you?” Standing in front of me is Pamela Hardart, a real estate agent who lives down the street. “ What a surprise. I thought for sure you might have moved in with your mother, so she could help you with Brandon.”
“Pamela dear you didn’t know my mother works full-time? She wouldn’t be much help. ‘
She gives me a big artificial smile and pulls a card out of her pocket. “Well if you do decide to sell your house, please keep me in mind. I have lots of clients for this neighborhood.”
My sadness has now shifted into anger.
I need to get away from her quickly. Just behind her in the corner I see Leslie, my old classmate from Zumba dance class, which I haven’t been attending since I Chloeis2gave up my gym membership trying to economize. Leslie and I had both struggled to learn those Latin dance steps and we’d laughed together at our clumsiness after class was finished. She’d be a safe person to talk to because usually our conversations centered on beauty and fitness.
She must have a new hairdresser, I think to myself, who has given her a miracle treatment. Her hair is lustrous, healthy, shining and straight yet full of body. I have to tell her how good she looks.
‘Leslie you look wonderful.” I greet her. “I love your new hairdo.”
She beams. “Thank you Charlotte,” and smiles shyly, evidently touched by my compliment.
“So tell me. You must have a new hairdresser, who is it? Or a new product you’re using.”
“Oh nothing really,” she answers. “Are you still going to Zumba?”
“Gee no. I guess you’ve been playing hooky as well, but Leslie really what is your secret?”
“You really want to know?”
I nod my head enthusiastically.
“It’s a wig,” she whispers, “I’m being treated for cancer. The chemo…. “ Her voice trails off, “but the prognosis is good. I only needed a lumpectomy, then the chemo, then the radiation. “
“I’m so sorry,” I stutter. I can feel my armpits growing damp.
“Don’t be, with all you’ve been through,” she tells me.
Then I remember the lump. This might be me in a few months.
I’m embarrassed. “I think I need a drink, Can I get you anything?”
“I’m fine,” she replies.
Relieved I walk towards the porch and cool air thinking why did I have to be
so pushy? Leslie doesn’t want to talk about her cancer with me. She has come to this party, wearing a wig to pretend that everything is fine.
Isn’t that why I came? To pretend I’m normal.
I see Brandon playing with his friends and he looks happy, without a care in the world, I feel a sense of relief. No worries. He’s living in the moment, which reminds me that’s all that anyone of us can do. Brandon. Leslie. Me.
I drink a few sips of wine and hear music playing, “The Monster Mash” a Halloween rock n’ roll favorite. I walk quickly across the room, take Leslie’s hand and we start to dance.